Steve Harvey once said he would never willingly leave a paying job. Let the record show how true that is. He is famous as a game-show host. He is famous as a talk-show host. He is a radio star. He is a comedian and philanthropist, and has a clothing line. He is a best-selling author, and one of his books has inspired two movies. Hot in Cleveland not long ago had two of its characters praising the former Clevelander.
No wonder that when he comes to Akron, it is not for one presentation, but two. He is giving a sold-out show in E.J. Thomas Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday. At 11:30 a.m. the same day, he will give the opening address to the University of Akron’s Black Male Summit in the John S. Knight Center.
It’s been an amazing couple of decades for Harvey. Yes, there has been drama, including a stormy split with his second wife and, he told Essence magazine, a $20 million tax lien after his accountant did not file Harvey’s returns for seven years. But the highs have been far greater, including a third wife, Marjorie, whom he credits with all his accomplishments in their seven years together.
Harvey’s interviews over the years indicate he was long thinking about what he wanted, and more gradually about the best way to get it. He has admitted to early years of drifting, of going to Kent State but not graduating, of trying out 80 to 85 different jobs, concluding he had “no skills at all whatsoever.”
Then he discovered comedy, at first writing jokes for other comics, then stepping onstage at Hilarities in Cuyahoga Falls in 1985. And, he quickly realized, he was good at it.
“There is no class for this,” he later said of comedy. “You can’t go to school and pick it up. You can’t be taught timing. … It is strictly from God.”
He stuck with the comedy, moving to Dallas where he eventually owned his own club — and ABC discovered him in 1993. By then, Harvey was in his late 30s — he is 57 now — and ready for success. “You can be famous too early,” he told me in one of our several conversations over the years. “But you can never be famous too late. … You get older, you get smarter.”
He showed how smart he was in 1994, when ABC had a comedy showcase of stars of some of its new sitcoms. Margaret Cho was there. So was a comic named Ralph Harris. Bob Saget was hosting. But Harvey was the one who ruled riffing on O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, a recent shooting in Texas and black people on cruises. There was an edge to a lot of the material, but a lot of laughs, too.
Unfortunately for Harvey, the show he was starring in, a family comedy called Me and the Boys, was dropped by ABC in 1995 after a single season. Although the ratings were not bad, the network was looking for more adult shows. But Harvey persisted.
He kept up with his comedy. He kept looking into TV. A year after the end of Me and the Boys, he was back with The Steve Harvey Show. Although it was on the relatively new WB network (which would later become part of the CW), it was still a TV home for Harvey, who played a high-school teacher on the series. When it ended in 2002, Steve Harvey was the longest-running show the WB had ever had.
But that wasn’t all Harvey wanted. He was still looking at other paths to success, and found a big one in the Original Kings of Comedy tour with Cedric “The Entertainer” (who had also co-starred on Harvey’s WB show), D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac; besides packing houses, the comedy tour was the subject of a concert film by no less than Spike Lee. He also ventured into radio with a morning show in Los Angeles that was later distributed nationally. “People have no idea how much money there is in radio,” he said.
But there was also a clearer sense that Harvey wanted to be more than just a comic and TV star, and certainly more than one pigeonholed as a “black performer.” The Steve Harvey Show tended to get bracketed with other African-American comedies, and he complained that the marketing of The Original Kings of Comedy was too narrow.
As The Steve Harvey Show was ending its run, he regretted that it had not done more than bring the laughs. One episode did deal with violent hip-hop rivalries of the time, but that was a rarity.
“I’m a much deeper person than [his character] Steve Hightower,” Harvey told me. “I like mattering to people more than Steve Hightower does. … The show was funny. It was clean. I’m proud of it. But we didn’t break any new ground. We didn’t make any statements.”
Harvey found other places for that, such as his radio show and his standup. In a 1997 HBO special, he made jokes about the difference between black and white people, but also declared that racism is “a sickness” and “the biggest problem we got in this country.”
His bits about how men and women deal with each other eventually evolved into his book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man; that spawned a smart movie comedy, Think Like a Man, which was a hit — and has led to Think Like a Man Too, coming to theaters in June. Even more important, as he is aware of his significance at events like the Black Male Summit, he may have finally achieved crossover success. It wasn’t black characters who talked him up on Hot in Cleveland.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.